I’m always searching for vegetable crops that go above and beyond normal expectations. I want plants that will produce a generous harvest, yet not take up too much precious garden space. I also want them to be disease and insect resistant, as well as relatively low maintenance. These might seem like unreasonable demands, but my vertical vegetable crops deliver all of this and more.
Vertical vegetables are simply crops that are grown up off the ground. Taking advantage of vertical space can be as basic as a bamboo teepee covered with the twisting vines of pole beans, or as complex as a living wall of vegetables and herbs that covers the side of a shed or garage, forming a patchwork of colours, textures and flavours.
Many of us think of vertical crops as those that have a vining growth habit, like peas and pole beans, but even some plants that can’t climb on their own, such as indeterminate tomatoes, are able to produce an excellent crop if trained up a support. If in-ground garden space is tight, try large containers fitted with small trellises, cages, teepees or wire towers to support edibles like cucumbers, tomatoes, small pumpkins and peas.
One of the best reasons to grow your crops upward is because it’s an easy way to harvest more food from your garden. Not only does it free up valuable growing space in your beds for lower-growing crops, but it can also significantly increase your overall yield. For example, pole beans grown in an equivalent-sized plot to bush beans will produce a harvest that is two to three times greater.
Plus, growing your crops vertically will help encourage healthy plants, because they’re not spending their summer battling weeds, insects or disease. Instead, the plants will enjoy maximum sunlight for an optimal leaf to fruit radio, and better air circulation than those grown at ground level, minimizing the threat of disease. Healthy plants will produce both higher-quality and larger harvests.
Reduces soil-borne diseases
In fact, gardeners new to vertical growing will marvel at just how healthy their vegetables can be. Because many soil-borne diseases can wreak havoc on plants that are grown at ground level (Hello, tomato blight!), by simply choosing to grow vegetables like cucumbers, tomatoes and beans on vertical supports, you can help prevent or dramatically slow the progress of a wide range of common diseases.
Pests will also find it more difficult to find their favourite food source if the plants are growing several feet in the air, rather than spread out across your garden beds. In our garden, we also find that insect-eating birds love to perch in our vertical trellises, where they can take shelter among the foliage and munch on any bugs brave enough to try to climb up our cucumbers.
Finally, vertical crops are easier to harvest than ground-level vegetables, which require extended periods of stooping and bending. Just be sure that whatever type of support you use allows you to easily access the crop — avoid netting with holes too small for your hand to easily pass through.
Tendrils and twiners
How plants climb will help determine what type of support to use. Peas, cucumbers, gourds and squash are vigorous climbers and scramble up by using curling tendrils that cling to both vertical and horizontal supports. This versatility enables them to climb many types of structures, including trellises, netting, teepees, fences and cages. Pole beans, on the other hand, don’t produce tendrils, but rather climb by twisting their stems around vertical supports like bamboo teepees, twine or woven wire fences. Indeterminate tomatoes can’t climb or cling to structures on their own, producing instead long vining branches that root wherever they touch the ground. If left to sprawl on the ground, the branches would continue to grow until the end of the season, resulting in a tangled mess of stems, leaves and fruit. Consequently, the fruit will be smaller and the plant will be susceptible to a variety of soil-borne diseases, such as blight. To vertically cultivate tomatoes, the plants must be trained and secured with fasteners or ties to tall stakes, trellises, towers or cages as they grow.
One of my favourite side benefits of growing vertical vegetables is the unique architecture and ornamentation that the structures and plants add to the garden. Our gardens feature central pole bean teepees that lend their support to an assortment of yellow, green and purple beans. Nearby, tall and sturdy A-frame trellises bear a heavy load of cucumber, gourd and baby pumpkin vines. In the tomato patch, funky metal tomato spirals soar above the rampant foliage and jewel-toned fruit of our ‘Sungold’, ‘Cherokee Purple’ and ‘Red Pear’ tomatoes.
Garden centres and nurseries offer many options for crop supports, but creative gardeners can also make their own with a little ingenuity, imagination and brightly coloured paint. Supports can be decorative and ornate like wrought-iron pyramids, or practical like a simple cucumber trellis made from rebar and concrete reinforcing wire.
Keep in mind that many vining crops, such as pole beans, can quickly reach heights up to 10 feet (3 m)! You would need a ladder to pick such a lofty harvest. Instead, keep supports to a manageable height of seven feet (2 m) or less — your pole bean crop will double back on itself and keep all your tender beans within easy reach.
One of the simplest ways to support quick-growing crops like peas is to hang netting or twine between two sturdy wooden stakes. Heavier vegetables like small pumpkins or melons should have strong vine support in the form of an A-frame trellis or woven wire fence. The heavy fruit of melons can also be further supported with simple mesh, cloth or pantyhose slings to ensure that they reach their super-sweet maturity damage-free.
Space-saving vertical crops
Growing indeterminate tomatoes vertically offers many advantages to this disease-prone crop. When grown against the sturdy support of a tall stake, trellis or tower, the foliage of the plants is exposed to maximum sunlight and increased air circulation, and are farther away from the soil-borne blights that commonly damage crops.
Best bets: ‘Sungold’, ‘Cherokee Purple’, ‘Black Cherry’, ‘Jelly Bean’
Did you know that growing cucumbers on a trellis can double your harvest? It will also produce the longest, straightest fruit. Train slicing and English-style cucumbers up an A-frame or woven wire trellis. Small-fruited cucumbers can be contained in pots fitted with a tomato cage.
Best bets: ‘Lemon’, ‘Diva’, ‘Sultan’
One of the easiest crops to grow, the rampant vines of pole beans produce a long season of tender pods if harvested frequently. The twining stems of pole beans prefer to scale vertical posts, as in a bamboo teepee or arbour, as well as netting, twine and fencing.
Best bets: ‘Fortex’, ‘Emerite’, ‘Lazy Housewife’, ‘Purple Podded Pole’
Tender shell, snow and snap peas are produced on vigorous plants that grow as short as one foot (30 cm) to as tall as seven feet (2 m), depending on the variety. For a vertical crop, look for vining types; grow them on netting that is supported by sturdy stakes, or up an existing woven wire fence, or allow them to scale bushy “pea twigs” placed thickly in the bed.
Best bets: ‘Super Sugar Snap’, ‘Oregon Giant’ (snow), ‘Mr. Big’ (shell)
Although I wouldn’t recommend growing giant pumpkins up a trellis, baby types do extremely well when allowed to scale a sturdy support like an A-frame trellis, woven wire fence or wire tower.
Best bets: ‘Baby Boo’, ‘Jack-Be-Little’
Most types of summer squash produce compact, bushy plants that are best grown at ground level. Yet, the tender, trumpet-shaped fruit of the Italian heirloom ‘Trombetta’ are borne on long vines and make an eye-catching addition to an arbour, trellis or fence.
Best bet: ‘Trombetta’
Choose a vining type of winter squash and grow them up a strong trellis or fence. A sling made from pantyhose or a mesh bag will cradle and protect developing fruit.
Best bets: ‘Sweet Dumpling’, ‘Little Gem’
Like pumpkins and squash, melons need a well-built structure like an A-frame trellis or woven wire fence. Support the growing fruit with a sling made from netting, mesh bags or pantyhose. Look for short-season varieties of muskmelons, honeydew or baby-type watermelons for best results.
Best bets: ‘Fastbreak’ muskmelon, ‘Sugar Baby’ watermelon
Beyond vertical vines: living walls and fences
Gardeners tending smaller plots are getting more inventive and putting all their vertical spaces, including fences and walls, to work. Take advantage of any bare upright surface by affixing pots, window boxes, shoe organizing bags, gutters or watering cans.
Pallet gardening is another easy way to add extra planting space to an apartment balcony or other small area. First, staple a heavy-grade landscape fabric to the back, bottom and sides of the pallet. When you’re ready to plant, lay the pallet flat and fill the front and top openings with moist potting soil. Tuck in seedlings of compact veggies and herbs like salad greens, radishes, dwarf tomatoes, thyme, parsley and spicy globe basil. Keep the pallet flat for a week or two after planting to give the roots a chance to grow into the potting soil before propping it up against a wall or fence. When the soil is dry to the touch, water carefully from the top.
Be sure your vertical surfaces offer adequate sunlight for edible crops — four to six hours for salad and root vegetables, and eight or more hours for fruiting plants like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. You’ll also need to irrigate potted crops more often than in-ground vegetables, so keep a close eye on soil moisture levels.